Zur Gründungs- und Verfassungsgeschichte der Stadt Mitau (Jelgava) in Kurland (1265-1795)

Karl Otto Schlau


The town of Mitau (Latvian: Jelgava), from 1561 to 1795 capital and seat of the court of the Duchy of Courland, is mentioned for the first time in the Livonian Reimchronik, when the Master of the Teutonic Order in Livonia, Konrad von Mandern, ordered to erect a Castle for the Order on an island or peninsula on the western bank of the river Aa in Courland in 1265. This Castle - later also Komturei (commandery) - became the starting point for the subjection of the Semgallians. During the centuries, the watercourses of the river Aa (Latvian: Lielupe) and its present subsidiary branch Drixe (Latvian: Driksa), which surrounded the Castle, probably have experienced several changes by spring floods which often took place in the lowland of Riga–Mitau. During the times of the Order, a settlement or a Hakelwerk developed probably at first beside the castle, and later on the western bank of the river Drixe. The name of Mitau may be of Middle Low German (mitten in der owe) or Semgallian (mit = exchange) provenance. The Latvian name of Jelgava might be of Livonian provenance, where it served as a general name for a village or a town.
Only after the foundation of the Duchy of Courland (1561), Mitau was effectively supported by Duke Gotthard Kettler who - probably in 1573 - granted the town municipal law, a first town Constitution and a coat of arms, and who furthermore raised it to the position of a capital and seat of the court. The coat of arms shows the head of an elk, the heraldic animal of the region of Semgallen; presumably in 1579 on the elk's neck was added a shield with the coat of arms of the ducal family as well as the insignia of the feudal lords of the duchy, the Polish kings Sigismund August and Stephan Bathory. In 1606 duke Friedrich Kettler issued for Mitau police regulations including regulations concerning Constitution and administration as well as trade and craft. Since that time the government of the town lay in the hands of the members of the corporations of German merchants and German competent craftsmen. The rest of the German inhabitants (nobility, literary men, officials or workers), the Lithuanians, Russians and Jews had no vote for the municipal bodies. The municipal Council consisting of 12 councillors was composed as a rule of the members of the Stadtältestenbank (council of town eiders), to which belonged one eider and eleven eldest of the corporations of German merchants and craftsmen. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the merchants had obviously occupied all or almost all the seats in the Council. Later in Courland and Mitau it came to social-political conflicts and disturbances between duke, nobility, literary men, members of the town council and craftsmen (Bürgerliche Union [Civil Union] and uprise of the miliers) as an effect of the ideas of the French Revolution. Only in this connection duke Peter Biron ordered the appointment of merchants and craftsmen in equal numbers to the council in 1794.